Michael Kopech was awaiting what would be his only start of the spring when I talked to him in Glendale last month. Fully recovered from September 2018 Tommy John surgery, the Texas-born hurler told me it was all systems go; he was ready to climb back on the proverbial horse. Recently shorn — his once-flowing mane having been cut for charity — Kopech was simply “trying to get comfortable and find a good rhythm” as he prepared to “compete again for the first time in a while.”
The outing that ensued offered ample evidence as to why he ranks No. 2 on our White Sox Top Prospects list. Not only did the righty record a one-two-three inning, he reportedly hit triple digits on six of his 11 pitches. That’s what he does when healthy. Radar gun readings aren’t always 100% reliable, but Kopech was nevertheless clocked at 105 mph when he was 20 years old and pitching in the Red Sox system. That was five months before he was sent to Chicago as part of the Chris Sale mega-deal.
Kopech turns 24 today, and he’s once again celebrating his birthday in a holding pattern. Unlike a year ago, an arduous rehab schedule won’t be dominating his day planner for months to come. And as all Tommy John rehabbers can attest, the process is indeed arduous.
“There’s a lot of grinding,” Kopech told me. “Every day it feels like it’s great, and then it feels like it’s terrible. At first, it kind of feels like it’s not your arm. But once you get through the growing pains of trying to throw a ball with a new ligament in there, it becomes second nature again. For the most part, I treated my rehab process as a chance to get better.”
Kopech intends to be much the same pitcher he was pre-surgery. He’ll remain fastball heavy, and his slider will still be his best secondary offering. As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Thanks to a surgically-repaired elbow, the power arsenal that propelled Kopech to top-shelf prospect status is as good as ever.
The former first-round pick doesn’t plan to be exactly the same. A little older and wiser, he’s poised to make the jump from thrower to pitcher.
“For the most part, I’ve been a competitor that wanted to overpower my competitors,” said Kopech. “Now I’m trying to treat the game more like a chess match. You hear that analogy in baseball all the time — it’s a chess match between the hitter and pitcher — but I’d never really approached it that way. I’ve treated is as, ‘OK, here’s my best stuff. See if you can hit it.’ Now I’m getting into manipulating pitches and commanding the ball where I want to.”
That doesn’t mean changing who he is. Kopech feels he can marry power and a more-thoughtful approach. What he doesn’t plan to do is let the latter gain the upper hand. Therein lies a bit of a paradox.
“I’ll actually be thinking on the mound less, if that makes sense,” said Kopech. “A big problem with me is that I get to overthinking. Then I create a narrative in my head about how the game may go — if this doesn’t go right, or that doesn’t go right — and get too far ahead of myself. Going forward, the game plan is that unless I just absolutely have a better pitch in mind, I’m going to trust my catchers. I’m going to just go with the flow, and not overanalyze every batter and every situation.”
Kopech’s catchers know his bread-and-butter as well as he does. They’re going to call for a lot of fastballs — Eric Longenhagen grades the pitch a 70 on the scouting scale — and more often than not they’ll want them up in the zone. Sliders will augment the high-octane heater, and every now and then a curveball or changeup will be sprinkled in for good measure. And regardless of the fingers that go down, the lion’s share of analysis will have taken place before the Star Spangled Banner was played.
“There needs to be an open dialogue between pitchers and catchers,” Kopech explained. “You both have to know what [the pitcher] does well. So, once the game starts it’s not so much thinking about what you need to do. You kind of already know what to do.”
Again, Kopech regularly hits triple digits with his heater. Hitters pretty much know what to expect from him. What they’re able do about it is another issue entirely.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.